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2021 Bracket Analysis: South Region

Jared Butler, Baylor

While Gonzaga spent the entire 2020-21 season atop the polls, Baylor operated for much of the year as the "greatest threat to the 'Zags", spending nearly the entire campaign perched at No. 2. An extremely long COVID pause disrupted the Bears' season, but they still went on to go 22-2 overall and win their first conference title in seven decades, back when they were members of the Southwest Conference. The Bears now enter the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed, but with their stock a step below National Championship favorites Gonzaga & Illinois. It's still a team worthy of your respect; they're one of the best shooting teams anywhere in college basketball, led by a premier star in Jared Butler, and have loads of experience. The primary concerns surrounding Baylor are two-fold: can their hot shooting continue onto the Tournament? And, can they survive a potentially treacherous path through their region, which begins with a dangerous test of either UNC or Wisconsin? I still really like Baylor's chances to come out of the region, and I still contend that it's the Bears, not Michigan, Illinois, or anybody else, that matches up best with Gonzaga in a possible National Championship Game. 

Baylor's first round opponent is none other than the University of Hartford Hawks, who won the America East Championship over UMass-Lowell. The Hawks are almost surely going to be easy pickings for a motivated Baylor squad, but that doesn't change the fact that even getting here is a tremendous story. Hartford had never made the NCAA Tournament as a Division I program prior to gaining entry last week and most of their history as a program has been forgettable. Since making the transition to D-I in the mid-1980s, the Hawks have had just 12 winning seasons and have yet to cross the 20-win threshold. Yet, head coach John Gallagher found a way to lead this team to the Big Dance this year in his 11th with the program. Just to make it there is quite an accomplishment, but consider how they did it. This is one of the worst offensive teams in all of college basketball, one of the worst rebounding, and an average defensive team. And yet, they got hot at the right time to get an opportunity to square off against Baylor. ESPN's "Basketball Power Index" gives them just a 2.2% chance to win Round One, which seems about right. But, this is a program that should appreciate just being here and getting a chance (slim as it may be) to extend their season. Even in a very unique March Madness, that is definitely something to be celebrated.

As a program that has made ten NCAA Tournaments since 1998, Winthrop hardly qualifies as a "dark horse" in the South Region, but the Eagles could still cause some chaos. They absolutely pummeled their competition in the Big South this season, going 17-1 in the league, with their lone loss coming by just two to UNC-Asheville. The Eagles are a balanced offensive team across the board, with four different players reaching double-digit scoring offenses, along with a plethora of bench options. They also possess two of the best mid-major players in the country in guard Chandler Vaudrin and forward D.J. Burns. Burns is fresh off a dominating performance in the Big South Championship Game, where he dropped 22 points in just 21 minutes. Vaudrin is not only their top scorer, but he also leads the Eagles in both assists and rebounds, while shooting 48% from the field. This Winthrop team certainly has the makeup of a potential "Cinderella" and it just so happens that they can a very favorable matchup in the first round against Villanova. The Wildcats are a National Title contender when fully healthy, but they're beat up across the board and sorely miss lead guard Collin Gillespie, who really is the heart and soul of the team. Winthrop should be favored there, and they also match up fairly well against either Purdue or North Texas in Round Two. The pieces are in place for the Eagles to win their first Tournament game since 2007, when they upset sixth-seeded Notre Dame.

2019's National Championship Game feels so long ago that it's easy to forget that Texas Tech came agonizingly close to the program's first ever National Title. This 2021 team probably won't be getting quite that far, but Chris Beard and this Red Raider program have proven they're one of the toughest outs anywhere in the country. It's a team that's always going to play strong defense and come at you for the entire forty minutes, but this particular Texas Tech edition is a little bit more interesting. It's an interesting mix of former transfers (Mac McClung, Marcus Santos-Silva) and 2019 holdovers (Terrance Shannon Jr., Kyler Edwards), along with some youngsters mixed in. McClung really is the key; the high-flying guard has had some incredible moments in his first season in Lubbock, but he's also been frustratingly inconsistent. When McClung is on and shooting well, this is a team that can legitimately compete with just about any team they face. When he's not, the offense is too often bogged down without any complementary pieces able to take on that leading role. McClung's been cold of late, but I have a feeling that the NCAA Tournament could be a different story for him. It's his first appearance in March Madness and he's never been a shy offensive player. If he can get back on track, this is may be the most dangerous team in the bottom-half of the South Region. To be fair, to make any type of prolonged run, they'll have to first get past a very tough and well-coached Utah State, as well as a likely date with a flaming hot Arkansas team. I think they can do it, but again, it all falls on McClung's shoulders what this Texas Tech is going to end up being.

There may not be any team in the entire field as mysterious as Patriot League Champ Colgate. Without a non-conference schedule to lean on, the Raiders ended up playing just 15 games in their 2020-21 season so far. They were ultimately successful, as they went 14-1, with their lone loss coming by just two to Army. Despite their mysterious nature, one thing is very clear about this Colgate team: they are going to put up points. They averaged 86.3 points per game as an offense on the year, which ranked just behind Gonzaga on the national level. It's an offense that can score in a variety of ways; they're a slick transition team that loves to get out and run, but they can also score in the half-court. It's a team that can bully you in the post when necessary or step out and stroke threes, where they shoot at a 40% clip as a team. Colgate is an excellent example of a modern college basketball team. Not only do they score in bunches and love to shoot the ball, they run a true four-guard lineup with the lone big man being 6'10" forward Keegan Records. The Raiders face off against third seed Arkansas in Round One, a game that "will be played on skates," according to Clark Kellogg. While the Razorbacks come into the NCAA Tournament flaming hot, so do the Raiders, who have now won 13 straight. Sure, the Patriot League isn't exactly elite national competition, but this is still a team that could stir up some chaos in the bottom part of the region. Either way, if you're betting on this Arkansas/Colgate game, bet the over no matter the number.

Picking the South

Round One

1 Baylor over 16 Hartford ... Hartford's first NCAA Tournament appearance at the Division I level ends up being short-lived, as Baylor rolls.

8 UNC over 9 Wisconsin ... UNC's collection of bigs, Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Walker Kessler overwhelm a Badger team that has really struggled to defend the paint all season.

12 Winthrop over 5 Villanova ... Even a full strength Villanova squad might have troubles with the Big South Champs but without Gillespie, the Eagles lock it down.

4 Purdue over 13 North Texas ... The Mean Green went on a valiant run to win the Conference USA, but they don't have the offensive punch to take down the Boilermakers.

6 Texas Tech over 11 Utah State ... Utah State is not an easy first round matchup, but Mac McClung does enough to lead the Red Raiders into Round Two.

3 Arkansas over 14 Colgate ... A fantastic upset opportunity here for Colgate, but the Razorbacks are playing too well to stop.

7 Florida over 10 Virginia Tech ... Virginia Tech has one of the weakest resumes of any NCAA Tournament team. The Gators send them home packing quickly.

2 Ohio State over 15 Oral Roberts ... You're never sure what you're getting with this streaky Buckeye team, but they shouldn't have too much difficulties with the Summit League Champs.

Round Two

1 Baylor over 8 UNC ... This is a much tougher second round game than most may realize, but Baylor's superior outside shooting propels them into the second weekend.

4 Purdue over 12 Winthrop ... The battle between Trevion Williams and D.J. Burns should be must-watch TV, but Purdue's supporting cast helps them move on.

6 Texas Tech over 3 Arkansas ... Chris Beard's teams seem to play their best basketball during March, and they have the tools to end Arkansas' hot streak.

2 Ohio State over 7 Florida ... The rematch of the 2007 National Championship ends differently this time around, with Ohio State moving on.

Sweet 16

1 Baylor over 4 Purdue ... Another game that should test Baylor's interior defense, but the Boilermakers simply have no answer for Jared Butler.

2 Ohio State over 6 Texas Tech ... It may be boring for both top seeds to move onto the Elite Eight, but Ohio State is a legitimate National Title contender when Kyle Young is healthy.

Elite Eight

1 Baylor over 2 Ohio State ... People seem to be forgetting about just how great of a season Baylor has had. They have the talent, depth, and experience to make a Final Four berth, even in a sneakily tough region.

South Region Champ: 1 Baylor Bears

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